I’m a bit off my sesquicentennial timing, but hope the reader will grant the grace of a day’s slip in the timeline. I mentioned yesterday evening the movements of Federal gunboats along the South Carolina coast as the Navy supported Major-General William T. Sherman’s preparations for his South Carolina march. Of those gunboat operations, the one which raised the most attention, on either side of the lines, was that of the gunboat USS Dai Ching and tug USS Clover as they moved up the Combahee River. Lieutenant-Commander James C. Chaplin skippered the gunboat, while Acting Ensign Franklin S. Leach commanded the tug.
In the evening of January 25, Chaplin anchored the Dai Ching at the mouth of the Combahee. His pilot, who’d been transferred from another ship for this operation, was concerned about ascending the river at night. A bit of background here – the Dai Ching had operated on the Georgia coast earlier in the fall. It was necessary to obtain a pilot familiar with the South Carolina waters. So they took on Stephen Small, a colored man from the USS Stettin. The Dai Ching herself was moderately armed as gunboats went for the time – one 6.4-inch Parrott Rifle, two 20-pdr Parrotts, and four 24-pdr howitzers. The Clover carried a 12-pdr gun and a 12-pdr howitzer.
At 6 a.m. the following morning the watches reported a boat heading down stream. The men on the boat identified themselves as crew “from the schooner Coquette, loaded with 74 bales of cotton, and lying about 2 miles below where the batteries at Tar Bluff,” some five miles above the Federal’s anchorage. The map below depicts the locations of the ships in the Combahee during the day, generally… as the base map dates to the 1820s:
Wasting no time, Chaplin got underway to with this prize in mind:
At 7.30 a.m. we went to quarters, the earthworks on Tar Bluff being in sight, though no guns or men could be seen with a glass from the masthead. We were now about 2 miles from the works, and nearly up to the schooner. Acting Master George Howorth was sent with an armed crew in the first cutter to take possession of the prize, and the tug was ordered to take her in tow, and follow us on up the river. When within a mile of the earthworks, and while training the 20-pounder rifle upon it, the rebels opened upon us with three guns, one shot falling short, the other two going over our deck. The engines were immediately reversed, the ship turned and headed down the river, with the intention of engaging them in the reach below, where we would be less exposed to rebel fire. While turning a very sharp bend, the wind blowing fresh down the river, with a strong ebb tide, I perceived that the ship would run into the bank on our starboard bow, and discovered that the pilot had deserted the bridge. I immediately rang three bells, but before the ship could be backed, she forged ahead into the bank, where she remained fast.
Aground, the Dai Ching could only engage the Confederates with the howitzers and aft-end 20-pounder rifle. Chaplin signaled the Clover to assist while his crew cleared the rails to allow the big 6.4-inch Parrott to pivot in line to fire on the Confederates, “which soon commenced playing on the enemy, doing good execution.” But Chaplin’s efforts to get the gunboat off were unsuccessful:
The tug came up, and while attempting to take our line, got in between the ship and the bank, and with great difficulty we succeeded in springing her out. She then took our line, which parted, and instead of returning and taking a hawser, which was ready, she stood on down the river.
The Clover stood down river for some forty-five minutes. Next Chaplin dispatched Howorth in the cutter in an attempt to reach the USS Pawnee, which was operating in the Ashepoo River nearby. When Howorth got downstream to the Clover, he insisted the tug take him out to the Coquette. This movement left the Dai Ching both stranded and isolated.
As the tide fell, the Dai Ching settled fast by the stern. The Federals expended all their 20-pdr ammunition engaging the Confederates. In exchange, the gunboat was “struck more than 30 times, her decks were shot through in six or seven places, one shot going through the reinforce deck, lodging in the berth deck.” One of the Confederates shots penetrated below the waterline. Chaplin ordered all the crew off the ship into the nearby marsh, save those needed to work the big Parrott. At 2:30 p.m. a Confederate shot hit the rifle’s carriage and put it out of action. With little other option at hand, Chaplin ordered the gunboat abandoned. At 3 p.m. the last of the officers set the ship on fire and made for the marshes.
After returning from the Coquette, Leach only took the Clover up river to a point three miles from the Dai Ching. Leach would claim with an ebb tide, he could not make way up the river to aid the gunboat. Chaplin and crew worked their way across four miles of marsh before finally getting to the tug. That evening the survivors were taken on board the Pawnee.
Although the Federals reported they’d engaged 7-inch Brooke Rifles, there were no Confederate guns of that type within many miles of the Combahee. If the reports filed earlier in the month are accurate, the heaviest weapons firing on the Dai Ching were 24-pounders.
The court of inquiry investigating the loss of the Dai Ching placed no blame on Chaplin. Rather the court felt Small, the pilot, was at fault for the grounding, indicating he “behaved in a most cowardly manner in deserting his post when the first shot was fired…” Furthermore the court felt Leach “displayed great negligence” when he failed to aid the Dai Ching. Lastly the court considered Howorth’s actions “highly reprehensible” for insisting the Clover fall down the river so he could carry the message to the Pawnee.
In his assessment of the loss, Rear-Admiral John Dahlgren noted:
The Dai Ching was the least valuable in many respects of the light-draft gunboats, her speed under steam being less than 5 knots, and her only heavy gun a 100-pounder.
Of course I would not risk even that much without sufficient reason.
Even more succinct and to the point, when appraised of the gunboat’s fate, Sherman responded, “Tell Admiral Dahlgren I regret the loss of the Dai Ching, but can quote Admiral Porter, who told me once that ships were made to be ‘lost’.”
(Citations from ORN, Series I, Volume 16, pages 191, 192-3, 199-200; OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, page 162.)